Ontario is the first Canadian province to make Holocaust education mandatory for Grade 6 students

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announcing Holocaust education will be mandated for Grade 6, Nov. 9, 2022 (Credit: Lila Sarick)

Ontario will become the first province to make Holocaust education mandatory at the elementary level, starting next September, education minister Stephen Lecce announced Nov. 9.

Speaking on the eve of the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, he revealed that Holocaust education will be part of the Grade 6 social studies curriculum. (It is already covered in Grade 10 Canadian history.)

“The horrors that took place 84 years ago, on the Night of Broken Glass, were unleashed on people for no other reason than the simple fact that they were Jews. We are here today to confront that same threat, one that is rising, a threat that I know plagues our democracy, our freedom and the pluralism that is our country,” Lecce said.

“We are acting today to ensure Ontario elementary students will learn for the first time how to combat hate and antisemitism and to ensure the words ’Never Again’ will remain true for future generations,” Lecce announced to applause at a press conference at Toronto’s Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue.

The Ministry of Education will work with the Ontario College of Teachers to develop professional training—known as an Additional Qualification—to prepare teachers to handle the sensitive subject.

The province has also funded Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto to develop resource guides for teachers and parents about combatting antisemitism.

Liberation 75, an organization founded by Marilyn Sinclair, whose parents were Holocaust survivors and which hosted the press conference, will receive $140,000 for Holocaust education.

Hate-motivated incidents are on the rise in Ontario schools, with over 50 incidents involving antisemitic hate symbols occurring in the Toronto District School Board during the 2021-22 school year, according to the ministry of education.

Ninety percent of antisemitic incidents in schools occur in grades 7 and 8, which is why Holocaust education will be mandated for Grade 6 students, Lecce said.

A survey conducted by Liberation 75 last year found that 42 percent of Ontario students said they witnessed an antisemitic event.

One-third of students said they thought the Holocaust was fabricated, exaggerated or were unsure if it actually occurred.

“It is necessary to introduce these ideas at an age that can buttress against hateful acts that are manifesting in Grades 7 and 8,” Lecce said in an interview with The Canadian Jewish News. “Often educators say ‘I don’t think they even know what they’re saying’ but they’re repeating it because they’re learning it online.”

Last winter, The CJN reported on a spate of incidents at Toronto public schools, involving swastikas drawn on school property and Jewish teachers and students being targeted by students saying “Heil Hitler’ and doing the Nazi salute

The announcement was welcomed by representatives of Jewish organizations, many of whom attended the press conference.  

“We look forward to the curriculum being developed and rolled out into the classroom. It provides a really powerful, foundational learning experience for students at a really formative moment. We’re seeing across the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) a real rise in antisemitic incidents taking place in middle school,” Noah Shack, vice-president of CIJA, said in an interview.

Ensuring that teachers are properly prepared to introduce such a sensitive subject will be the key to the initiative’s success, Holocaust educators said.

“Mandating through curriculum needs to be partnered with supporting teachers to teach this history, because if they aren’t provided that support, it won’t be taught or it won’t be taught well,” said Leora Schaefer, executive director of Facing History and Ourselves Canada.

“Especially when we’re thinking about students as young as Grade 6, it is especially important that teachers are knowledgeable in best practices, that they are grounded in resources that are age appropriate and that their approach is age appropriate,” said Schaefer, who attended the press conference.

Teacher training for this new, mandatory curriculum should happen during school hours, which will require a financial investment from the province, Schaefer said.

Holocaust education needs to be “carefully navigated because of the age and because of the diversity of the students in our province,” she said. “It is an exciting opportunity, but the teachers need to be carefully supported.”